Full Throttle, Rotate, Strike Three

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When I went for my private pilot checkride, the right seat was occupied by a DPE named Jim Higgs. While a checkride should be a time for the student to prove his competency and show off his nascent skills I still learned things on my checkride. While taxiing back to the ramp afterwards Mr. Higgs admonished me that as a new pilot I should be always ready to cancel my plans if things weren’t going well. He suggested a three strike rule — if more than three things go wrong, cancel the flight and fly another day. Jim Higgs passed away last week (circumstances unrelated to aviation), but his words were ringing loud and clear in my ears this past weekend.

I’ve got an awesome girlfriend. She just passed her private pilot checkride, and she jumped straight into instrument training with both feet. Nothing in this world makes her happier than flying. So when she got some bad news this week and went into a bit of a funk, I figured that the perfect thing to do to would be to take her flying to Fredericksburg (T82) for some lunch and airplane watching to get her mind off things and get her into a happy state of mind again.

I took a look at the schedule for the local flying club, and to my delight there was an IFR 172 available all afternoon. It was perfect! I could do some practice approaches and get a little hood time with a safety pilot, she could log some precious PIC time as she works towards commercial, and we would both get some delicious lunch at a beautiful little airstrip in Texas.

Well, that was the plan at least.

As I rolled into the airfield, I noticed that the plane was already back under the hail shed and tied down. Usually the way that things work is that if you arrive about 30 minutes before your flight you can catch the last guy at the pumps fueling the airplane before they put it away. This reduces the time it takes to haul the plane out and prep it for the day, and most people seem to like to hand off the airplane that way from one club member to another. The flight prior to mine was a short one, but I arrived well before it should have ended. He should have been landing as I was rolling in, not already tucked away in the hangar.

My train of thought was derailed as my girlfriend parked next to me and we headed into the FBO to pick up the keys. While we waited for the woman behind the counter to come back for a break we got a weather briefing, talked through the GPS approaches for T82, and I checked online to see if there were any maintenance issues with the airplane. The flying club uses the online reservation system for everything airplane related including maintenance squawks and annual due dates, but the plane was green all around. From where I was sitting, everything looked perfect. As soon as the woman came back we picked up the keys and headed down to pre-flight.

During the pre-flight inspection the airplane looked perfect. Mechanically, at least. The interior needs a heaping helping of TLC, but that’s another story for another time. We did the same checks we’ve done hundreds of times on these Cessna 172 aircraft and couldn’t find a single thing out of place. Heck, even the oil was new and shiny.

The one thing that caught my attention was in the log sheet: the last person to fly only put 0.2 hours on the airplane, which should have been a huge red flag that something was wrong. It didn’t register in my mind though, since there was no open squawk for anything on the airplane and I couldn’t see anything obviously wrong. I had an inkling that something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

We rolled the airplane out from under the hail shed, hopped in, and started running the “ENGINE START” checklist. Mixture rich, prime as required (skipped since it was 100 degrees outside), master switch on, clear prop, mags to start. The propeller started spinning, but after a good 10 seconds of cranking all we had achieved was a momentary sputter. My girlfriend has had way more time in a carborated airplane than me (I usually fly a fuel injected 172SP ), and on her suggestion I gave the engine a shot of primer and tried again — same result. She took the controls and tried again with similar success.

Strike one.

Not wanting to burn out the starter I admitted defeat. I asked my gal to run the keys up to the FBO and ask if we could take the other (non-IFR and much less spiffy) 172 instead. That would mean no hood time, no approaches, and no PIC time for her, but at least we would accomplish the main goal for the day. She returned a few minutes later, mechanic and FBO owner in tow, and they promptly set to work proving that there was a lot I still needed to learn about the delicate art of carborated engines. After a few minutes of fussing the mechanic gave me some pointers, started the engine a couple times, and left us to our own devices.

As I was about to hop back in the airplane the FBO owner called out that the other 172 was still available if I wanted that one instead. She also finally unveiled the reason the last flight was so short:

“The last guy said that the airspeed indicator was acting weird, but he’s an idiot.”

My girlfriend cracked open the passenger side door of the 172 and asked what I wanted to do. The FBO owner has probably had more time in airplanes than I’ve had on this Earth, so if she and her mechanic weren’t concerned about the airspeed indicator I wasn’t concerned either. I saw the opportunity to finish the flight and accomplish all of our goals for the day, and I decided to give it a shot.

On reflection, I should have taken the other airplane. As the PIC I have final authority and responsibility over the airworthiness of the aircraft, and that glimmer of doubt should have been enough to wave me off. But with the FBO owner and her mechanic both giving me the thumbs up, I decided to defer to their judgement and give in to my get-there-itis.

The FBO guys sped away as we climbed back into the 172 to try this again. The engine started this time, but as I flipped the avionics master switch the intercom didn’t want to play nice. I could hear the traffic over the radio, but my girlfriend and her very expensive Bose headset were completely inaudible. I had seen this before and knew what the problem was instantly: the intercom was set to “isolate.” Except it wasn’t. The switch was in the proper position, but it was still operating as if it was in isolate mode (where the passengers are isolated from the pilot so they can focus on ATC traffic). I toggled the switch a couple times to no effect, then proceeded to try every other switch on the radio as well. Nothing worked. I finally tried the isolate switch one more time, and the intercom finally crackled into life. She could hear me, and I could hear her.

Strike two.

With everything now apparently working, I started to taxi down to the end of the runway. The glider guys were busy on the other side of the displaced threshold preparing for a launch, but we would be done and off the field well before they were ready to go. I made sure to do all the usual IFR instrument checks as we were wheeling towards the run up area and everything seemed perfect to me. After a brief run-up and systems check we headed out onto the runway for takeoff.

I watched as the airspeed indicator came alive, and the information it was giving me seemed to tally with the ground speed on the panel mounted GPS. I remember thinking to myself that the FBO owner was definitely right: this instrument seems to be working fine. I noted 60 knots IAS on the dial, pulled back on the yoke, and we sped off into the sky without so much of a peep out of the stall warning horn.

As we climbed out above the trees and I started to trim for a typical climb attitude, I heard my girlfriend yelping “airspeed!” I glanced down and she was right — the VSI was showing a climb, the tach was damn near on the red line, the GPS showed about 80 knots, and the nose was pegged to the horizon, but the airspeed indicator was indicating only 40 knots — below the green arc. And dropping.

Strike three.

Now I knew for a fact we had a bad instrument. I leveled out, but even with full throttle and level pitch the airspeed indicator kept dropping. I decided to ignore it, and relied on the GPS readout instead for some indication of how fast we were going. My girlfriend suggested we head back and land and I immediately agreed.

I turned right crosswind and announced on the CTAF that we would be returning for landing with a malfunctioned airspeed indicator. The glider guys seemed to get the message, and a few seconds later they had hopped in their planes and skedaddled off the runway. As I turned right downwind I had a clear runway and some time to think, and I made a couple quick decisions.

Without a functioning airspeed indicator I had no idea of how much energy I had to play with on final. I could use my GPS to give me ground speed, but that doesn’t correct for the wind. I decided to come in at a faster speed than my usual 65 knots, trying to peg the GPS at 70 to 75 knots on final instead. With the winds that day it would put me at about 80 knots IAS (if it worked) which was perfect –the last thing I wanted to do was come up short on energy. I had 4,340 feet of runway ahead of me and only needed about 1,000 for a normal landing, better to bleed the speed off on the ground than stall on short final.

I also made a decision about the flaps. The airplane was outfitted with 40 degrees of flaps, and while I had practiced the brick-esque glide path before that wasn’t what I wanted to do today. 30 degrees of flaps would be enough to reduce our airspeed sufficiently to put it on the ground, but not so much that it dropped out of the sky.

As we passed the numbers we started going through the usual motions for landing. I turned onto final,  popped in the last 10 degrees of flaps, and lined the airplane up for a normal approach. When we were about 10 feet off the ground I definitely noticed that we were much faster than normal, but that’s exactly what I had wanted. I pitched up for the flare but as we were a little fast I couldn’t flare in time and we landed flat. I cut the throttle and applied the brakes, and that’s when we started to porpoise.

As we were rolling, this specific video played in my mind. It had been months since I had seen it but I knew that the bouncing and porpoiseing we were feeling was only going to get worse if left unchecked. I pulled back and we lifted off again, but this time I held the flare properly and as we bled off airspeed and energy we settled back on the ground and rolled to a stop.

As we turned off the runway my girlfriend remarked “I told you we should have taken the other airplane.” I really need to listen to her more often.

Back on the ground we put the airplane back in the hail shed and walked to the FBO. As we were shutting down we talked about grabbing the other airplane and taking that one to T82 instead, but the words of wisdom from my dearly departed DPE were ringing in my ears. Enough had gone wrong for one day, it was time to call it quits.

At the FBO the woman behind the desk took the keys back and agreed with the decision — her mom had instilled a similar three strikes rule in her as well. She told us we wouldn’t be charged for the experience, and that might very well be the cheapest but most important lesson I’ve ever had in flying.

I’ve heard the phrase “it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground,” but I had never experienced it before. This was the first time I had experienced a true equipment failure and it definitely made me never want to have one ever again. I learned that even though others may have more experience or more time in airplanes, if something doesn’t seem right to me I need to speak up and do something about it. Details matter, and all the little red flags should have added up to a huge stop sign well before I even took off.

I was an idiot. We should never have left the ground in that airplane. In the future I need to pay more attention to the warning signs that things might not be all right with the airplane I’m about to risk my life to fly.

2 comments

  1. The average age of planes in Mexico demands that we use the nine strikes rule instead of three or we would never fly. Thanks for the post!

  2. Hello Nick! My name is Michael Breshears. I’m a CFI up in Bulverde with Anderson Aviation. I too took my PPL check-ride with Mr. Higgs, way back in 2011. I’m very sorry to hear of his passing. He was quite a character!

    Give me a shout at mabreshears@gmail.com. It’d be great to fly with you sometime or just talk shop! Keep writing!

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